Ashes of Despair

A burned black church finds helping hands from across country
Springfield’s Macedonia Church of God in Christ, burned in 2008 in an alleged act of racism, is getting help from California volunteers. (Dennis Leger for The Boston Globe)


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
August 19, 2010 
SPRINGFIELD - They came because they wanted to show that love can have more force than hate, that good can triumph over evil.
What was once a heap of ash and mangled steel, a symbol of racist vitriol, is slowly rising into what these volunteers hope will be a beacon of justice.
"I feel people forget that racism is still a problem in our country,'' said Charli Lighty, 24, who flew in from California to lend a hand. ``This is my way of saying that what happened here is not OK and that no matter how many times people tear things down, people like us will be here to build it right back up again.''
Nearly two years ago, on a night when much of this city celebrated President Obama's election, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., learned that the church his congregation had nearly finished building was on fire.
When he arrived at the scene shortly before dawn, he felt a deep despair as he watched flames lick the sky, heard steel beams buckle, and breathed in the acrid air while his sanctuary crackled into embers.
``I wanted to run in and save it, but it was totally consumed,'' said Robinson, pastor for 10 years of Macedonia Church of God in Christ, which his father founded in 1950. ``I felt helpless - and maybe some anger.''
It got worse when he learned that three young white men had been accused of torching a church with a predominantly black membership to protest the election of the nation's first black president.
In the past 21 months, the anger has given way to hope.
And yesterday, as Governor Deval Patrick paid his third visit to the church, Robinson beamed as Lighty and her team of volunteers from California drilled holes, hammered nails, and sawed planks of wood, giving a soaring shape to the new sanctuary.
The volunteers were one of four teams from around the country who have come to Springfield this summer to help rebuild the church, which is slated to open next spring. They have ranged in age from 15 to 87 years old and are among hundreds of others who have sent nearly $100,000 in donations to defray the cost of the $2 million project.
The volunteers, organized by the National Coalition of Burned Churches, each paid about $800 to spend the week working in Springfield. They came, they said, because they wanted to prove there could be justice in the wake of such a crime.
``We want the people who cause havoc to know that no matter what they do, there are more people like us who want to make this a better world,'' said Alex Santa Maria, 17, who flew in from Sun Valley to help the church.
Three people have been charged with climbing through a window of the church on the night of the election in 2008, and igniting it with gasoline, to show their disapproval of Obama's election. The church was about two-thirds finished.
Two defendants, Benjamin F. Haskell, 23, and Thomas A. Gleason Jr., 22, have pleaded guilty to arson and are awaiting sentencing. A third defendant, Michael F. Jacques, 25, is awaiting a trial.
After a receiving a tour of the rising church and thanking the volunteers, Patrick called the project a ``triumph of love and community and faith over hate.''
``The fact that there are volunteers coming from around the country to make common cause with Macedonia is a beautiful thing,'' he said.
He and Mayor Domenic J. Sarno of Springfield urged others to contribute to the new church. ``Whether it's blood, sweat, tears, or monetary, the help is more than welcome,'' Sarno said.
Jim Tarrant, construction manager of the project, said volunteers have saved the church about $30,000 on labor, and he would be happy to have more helpers.
His staff has laid the church's concrete foundation and erected its 32-foot slanting steel beams that make up the roof. They have broken up the 18,000-square-foot complex into a 500-seat sanctuary, a fellowship hall for wedding receptions and other community activities, prayer rooms, and offices.
The volunteers included several veterans of rebuilding other burned churches.
For Richard Garner, the 63-year-old pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Glendale, the trip to Springfield was the eighth time he volunteered to help rebuild a church.
``I'm used to doing this in small churches in the South; you don't expect this in a place like Massachusetts,'' he said. ``It's amazing and disconcerting what happened here. We thought people here would have moved beyond this. So we're doing what we can.''
Ken Ellis, 69, of North Hollywood, has helped rebuild 11 churches. ``It's hard to imagine how devastating it was for this congregation, given how close they were to finishing their church,'' he said.
As Bishop Robinson watched the volunteers, he said that at times over the past two years he has felt like Job, forced to suffer without understanding why. But the more help he has received from strangers, he said, the more his faith has been reaffirmed.
``It's hard to understand such an act of hatred and violence,'' Robinson said. ``But we have also seen the opposite, with all these people who came here at their own expense to help. We see this as a sign for hope.''
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.